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Increased Interest In Paralympic Games Shines A Light On Athletes

By Doug Williams | March 06, 2018, 1:25 p.m. (ET)


When Amy Purdy began snowboarding on two prosthetic legs, she thought she was the only one in the world.

She tried to do as much research as she could, searching for men and women across the globe who were snowboarding on one or two prosthetic legs, but the results were few. Eventually she built her own network of those she found so they could learn from one another about techniques, legs and health.

“Honestly, that’s all that existed at that time,” she said. “There was nothing. … I didn’t even know about the Paralympics when I first lost my legs. I’d never heard of the Paralympics.”

Purdy is 38 now, years removed from the amputation of both legs below the knees because of the effects of bacterial meningitis she contracted at 19. The bronze medalist in snowboard-cross from the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, who’s set to compete at the PyeongChang Games that begin March 8, is ecstatic things are so different now.

“I was watching the Olympics and I think there’s more Paralympic athletes being represented than Olympic athletes in the [advertising] campaigns,” she said. “It’s amazing. Everybody has talked about it. Now all of a sudden, there’s more visibility for Paralympians.”

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Paralympic athletes are a big part of current TV, print and Internet ad campaigns. They’re on magazine covers, they’re being profiled in all forms of media and they’ve been part of high-profile TV shows and increased media attention of the Games in recent years while also building big followings on social media. Where once it was hard for a young, athlete with a disability to find a role model, now it’s easy. Consider:

  • Purdy is one of four athletes (the other three are Olympians) currently featured on special Coca-Cola bottles. Previously, Purdy has been on “Dancing With the Stars” and the “Amazing Race,” has written a New York Times best-seller “On My Own Two Feet,” and danced at the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. Purdy and Evan Strong, another Paralympic snowboarder, also are part of Bridgestone Tires’ current advertising campaign.
  • U.S. Paralympians Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair racer, and swimmer Brad Snyder, along with Canadian skier Lauren Woolstencroft, are part of Toyota’s “Mobility for All” campaign that played during the recent Super Bowl and was the launch of its “Start Your Impossible” campaign through the Olympics and Paralympics in South Korea.
  • Snowboarder Brenna Huckaby is on the cover of the February issue of Parents magazine, was featured in People in January and is the first Paralympian ever to be a model in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.
  • Americans will be able to watch more Paralympic action than ever before at this year’s Games March 8-18. NBC will broadcast more than 250 hours on its platforms (including 94 on TV), nearly doubling the broadcast hours from Sochi four years ago.

To Huckaby, a 22-year-old who’ll be competing in her first Paralympic Winter Games, all the attention Paralympians are getting now is wonderful.

“It kind of puts us on the same platform as the Olympians, and it’s really cool that not only the companies, but the rest of the world, are seeing us at the same level,” she said. “It makes you want to keep working very hard, keep performing well and keep that exposure up.”

Huckaby’s situation is different than Purdy’s, in that she lost her right leg to amputation just eight years ago as the result of osteosarcoma, a bone cancer. Within months she was snowboarding on a prosthetic leg, trained at the National Ability Center in Utah and was competing by 2013. Now a past world champion in snowboard-cross and banked slalom – as well as a mother and fiancé – Huckaby knows the exposure she and the Paralympic Movement are getting is important for the next wave of athletes.

“They can visualize it, they can see it,” she said of the commercials, ads, magazine covers, social media accounts and increased TV coverage. “It just makes the dream more realistic. When you’re shooting in the dark and you don’t really have that path — but you know you want to be on that path — just seeing someone else where you want to be can be night and day for whatever you’re trying to achieve.”

To Purdy, more attention for the Paralympic Games always seemed it would be a natural connection with American viewers through increased hours of event coverage and ad campaigns.

Bart Conner, Nadia Comaneci, Laurie Hernandez, Tatyana McFadden, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Summer Sanders attend HBO's Official Golden Globe Awards After Party on Jan. 7, 2018 in Los Angeles.

“I’ve always thought that Paralympians have these amazing stories,” she says. “Olympians do as well, but Paralympians have fought their way to get where they’re at and had to overcome some major, major obstacles in their lives, and they have such brilliant stories to tell. I think brands are just now realizing that and utilizing them.”

Purdy, too, takes tremendous satisfaction in being able to connect with young people who were like she was when she lost her legs, uncertain about their futures and looking for guidance. It’s why she and her husband, Daniel Gale, set up their nonprofit organization, Adaptive Action Sports, to help disabled men and women into action sports. Six athletes from the organization have made this year’s U.S. Paralympic Team.

“There’s no longer, ‘I want to ski again or I want to snowboard again and I have a disability and I don’t know how to do that,’” said Purdy. “Now you’re going to see people on TV doing it and also can reach out to an organization like ours and actually have a pathway to that success.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Amy Purdy

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Brenna Huckaby

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Bradley Snyder